Steve Debenport

“It takes me longer to hire someone for my staff than it does to design a custom home,” Jeb Breithaupt declares. You may feel you have to devote the same amount of time — time that you wish you could devote to other tasks. In Breithaupt’s case, the Shreveport, La.–based remodeler has developed a hiring plan that devotes three of its 11 points just to the search process. (We’ve posted the whole plan online.) But beyond asking friends and going to the usual want-ad sources, Breithaupt still has challenges turning up great workers. Here’s advice from remodelers who are tackling that same problem.

In Collierville, Tenn., “We’ve really struggled to find anything other than manual labor,” says David Moore, owner of Moore Construction. “It’s like all the quality skills people [we had] from 2005 to 2009 have disappeared.” His solution: Convert college kids with arts and sciences degrees to remodelers.

Over the past four years, as the market recovered, Moore has restaffed close to half of his 11-person company by going to the University of Memphis nearby and asking the business school to recommend candidates. “They go to school and get a degree in organizational development or such, and they need a job,” he says. “We’re looking to find someone who’s capable and committed, and we’ll teach the rest.”

Kathy Simoneaux, owner of Acadian House Kitchen & Bath Studio, in Baton Rouge, La., also likes students but prefers to hire them as interns. “[We seek] interior design students who apply and seem best suited to our culture and fit the profile we’re looking for,” she says. “This has worked well for us, and we have two who are now full-time employees learning to be kitchen designers.”

Bill Borchert of Borchert Building Co., in Washington, Mich., habitually reaches out to groups such as the National Kitchen & Bath Association and the local home building association, as well as to favorite suppliers.

One on One

The average cost to recruit a graduating college student during the 2010–11 season was $5,054, while the median cost was $2,906, a survey of 156 companies by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found. That’s pricey, but losing a current worker could be worse. Other polls suggest that even if you’re paying just $8 per hour, it will cost you up to $3,500 to replace that person.

Many of the remodelers we interviewed publish want ads, and several stressed the importance of being as clear and detailed as possible about the job and the skills needed to perform it. Breithaupt’s policy is to “make the applicant work to get a job,” so potential candidates who reply to a want ad are asked to write what amounts to an essay detailing skills possessed and salary range desired. That usually shrinks the pool to people who really want the work, he says.

Breithaupt then asks candidates who reach that level to take a Myers-Briggs personality test so that, for example, when he is looking for a sales rep, he’ll be sure the candidate is an extrovert. Though few remodelers we spoke with do this, they all stressed the importance of the next steps: the interview.

Note, we say “steps” here, because most remodelers said that they start with a telephone interview and then set up a face-to-face meeting. Breithaupt says he uses the phone interview to check for critical skills, such as how carpenters say they use tools and what bookkeepers know about construction accounting. During the personal interview, he pays attention to appearance and body language.

“I like the one-on-one interviews so I can sit down with the prospective employee and get a feel for their character,” says Sam Gervais, vice president of the Prime Renovation Group, in Burlington, Vt. “I will hire a person with less experience but a better overall character nine times out of 10.”

But be aware that decades of research have found that interviews can prove unreliable, often because of confirmation bias (where you start looking for reasons to back up your initial suspicions) or similarity bias (where you invariably like people who are like you). Both can keep you from picking the best person.

The average cost to recruit a graduating college student during the 2010–11 season was $5,054, while the median cost was $2,906, a survey of 156 companies by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found. That’s pricey, but losing a current worker could be worse. Other polls suggest that even if you’re paying just $8 per hour, it will cost you up to $3,500 to replace that person.

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